Mental Health

The pandemic has made mental well-being a public health must

A centre in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for elderly people, homeless and patients with mental health conditions.

A centre in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for elderly people, homeless and patients with mental health conditions. Image: Reuters/Pilar Olivares

Julie Van Ongevalle
Executive Vice President, Consumer Healthcare, Sanofi
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Mental Health

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  • With mental health symptoms surging during the pandemic, nurturing mental wellness has become a collective social responsibility.
  • Early diagnosis and self-care can help manage the progression of mental illnesses and reduce healthcare costs.
  • Great self-care means expanding the range of mental-health services available to the public.

With the psychological impact of the pandemic likely to linger for years, self-care is not a luxury but a public health necessity. Focusing on mental wellness is a collective social responsibility. As third and fourth waves of COVID-19 surge in some parts of the world, highly vaccinated countries are cautiously reopening, breathing more freely, hopeful in early indications that inoculation will keep virus and variants under control. As we look ahead, we must also find solutions to supporting and improving mental health.

During the pandemic, nearly half of US adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, a figure that has been largely consistent, up from one in 10 who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019. In France, cases of depression doubled. We can see similar mental health concerns growing worldwide. It’s disproportionately affecting young adults, people of color and essential workers, even people without prior mental health disorders. Lockdowns have also limited access to mental health services, creating backlogs in care. Not to mention the remote working lifestyle we have been in for more than a year now, which often creates feeling of being disconnected from colleagues, even when connected technologically to them.

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The pandemic has put mental health and wellness into sharp focus. It’s reassuring to see many initiatives doubling down on mental-health awareness now: the World Health Organization (WHO), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the UK’s Royal Family and the Global Self-Care Federation are just a few among many others that have championed it as a priority and have undertaken large-scale public service campaigns to destigmatize symptoms and raise awareness of available solutions. Taking care of mental health is good for individuals and good for public health systems in the future, as early intervention and prevention helps keep many people out of more burdensome clinical settings.

Insomnia is one example that comes to mind, a condition that has grown upwards of an estimated 20% since the pandemic. By working closely with healthcare communities, we can help raise awareness of insomnia’s repercussions on overall mental and physical wellness. Over-the-counter medicines can help support people in their management of early sleep issues. Non-medicinal solutions also exist: for example, Music Care, a research and digital program for patient care through music, has been clinically proven to naturally reduce both alertness and the need for sedation among hospital patients, decreasing heart rate and respiratory rate, promoting relaxation and sleep.

There’s much more we can do with the mental health community to support improved sleep as just one small part of the solution. The pandemic has spurred many people to pay better attention to their health with increased everyday physical activity for some, and for others, an improved diet with more home-cooked meals. Yet we know good habits are sometimes hard to keep up: According to one study, 70% of adults under 40 say they believe they are performing sufficient self-care, but just over half of their doctors and pharmacists say their patients aren’t doing enough. We can close this gap with better preventive mental wellness efforts and more self-care, areas that had already begun to gain attention even before the pandemic.

The pandemic exacerbated existing levels of mental health conditions
The pandemic exacerbated existing levels of mental health conditions Image: Statista

Beyond raising awareness about mental health, it’s about taking concrete action and correspondingly providing appropriate resourcing and building a supportive ecosystem. During the World Health Assembly in May, WHO officials called worsened mental health worldwide from COVID-19 a “mass trauma” and consequently adopted a decision endorsing an update to the WHO’s Mental Health Action Plan: It will include forums on suicide prevention, workplace mental health, universal health coverage, mental health of children, mental health across the life course, and the involvement of people with lived experience of mental health conditions.

More self-care is also about improved access to health services for the broader population. Due to the accelerated digital transformation hastened by the pandemic, internet platforms have become key levers for empowered self-care. There, people can find out more about their health conditions, including mental wellness-related ones, seek support, assess options and get solutions. Incredibly accessible, putting information literally at your fingertips, these new channels provide people with the opportunity to manage their health – to self-care – in a more effective way, without taking away resources from the frontline. The development of teleconsultation in medicine, the evolution of click and collect and home delivery by e-pharmacies is putting the pharmacist at the centre of population health, more and more playing the role of health counsellor. Today, there is a need to extend these services to people experiencing mental health problems, especially when pharmacists are likely to be their first point of contact. Pharmacists have a significant role to play if we make mental health for all a global reality.

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That said, not all mental wellness can be managed with self-care alone; but multiple studies have shown that screening and early professional intervention will prevent more severe conditions from setting in following major trauma. Individuals can be their own strongest advocates, with governments, industry and patient groups each playing a role in strengthening true consumer literacy in this field. Not only is it important to recognize mental health risks, but we also need to stay in tune to identifying symptoms, take courageous steps to self-care, and engage with the right solutions. Together, we can solve the mental health challenges we’ll still face even after COVID-19 is under control.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Mental HealthGlobal HealthHealth and HealthcareCOVID-19
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